Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Laotian Textiles in between Markets and the Politics of Culture

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Laotian Textiles in between Markets and the Politics of Culture

Article excerpt


In the Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao P.D.R.), weaving and its products are linked to a long history of practices and representations that have recently undergone considerable transformation. These changes are in particular linked to the emergence since the 1990s of new sites of textile production, namely private workshops that bear innovative marketing strategies, which are referred to as discourses on 'culture' and 'tradition' intended for the world market. The capital, Vientiane, where economic reform has made its clearest impact, is the centre of this fundamental commercial textile revolution.

This article argues that an empirical approach to the politics of culture implies a micro-perspective that has to be fulfilled by a commitment to bottom-up research. Here I present evidence of how uses and values have become locally assigned to certifications of excellence, the criteria of which have been developed and defined abroad by international agencies. I compare two ethnographic examples of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) certification devices that have been attributed to the Dok Dao Gallery, (1) one of the oldest and most prestigious private weaving companies of the Lao P.D.R., (2) namely, the UNESCO Crafts Prize and the UNESCO Awards of Excellence for Handicrafts which replaced it from 2006. In particular, I question the mobilisation of these international awards in the commoditisation of fabrics produced by this company and examine discourses elaborated in relation to them. On a larger scale, I consider current dialogic relations between global policies and entrepreneurial practices. Therefore, I also discuss authorship claims and the local demand for the establishment of intellectual property laws that are emerging in the field of a handicraft which was considered until recently as a shared tradition or a common heritage.

The UNESCO Crafts Prize: A certification of traditional technical expertise

In 1991, one year after the official foundation of her company, Keomani, the director of the Dok Dao Gallery won a UNESCO Crafts Prize for a naturally dyed re-edition of an ancient shoulder cloth (pha biang) decorated with zigzag naga (3) patterns, (4) a shoulder cloth that she personally wove. The Crafts Prize programme was initiated in 1990 under the 10-year Plan of Action for the Development of Craft in the World 'to reward and encourage the talents of most creative crafts workers and to make their products known outside their place of origin'. (5) Besides financial rewards, the prizewinners benefited from a series of promotional activities such as exhibitions or participation in international trade shows (for example, Maison et Objets, Paris), the broad dissemination of their works through different means of communication (brochures, Internet websites or calendars) and promotion in regional craft exhibitions and fairs. Between 1990 and 2005 (the final year of the programme), this prize was awarded to 83 artisans from four regions of the world (Africa, Arab States, Asia-Pacific and Latin America-Caribbean).

Keomani officially received this Crafts Prize from the hands of Queen Sirikit of Thailand during the opening ceremony of the meeting and exhibition entitled, 'Asian Textile Heritage: Craft and Industry' in January 1992 at the University of Chiang Mai. This event had been organised in honour of the Queen's 60th birthday and was the occasion for the Director General of UNESCO to present her the Borobudur Gold Medal. This medal symbolised 'the gratitude and the recognition of the international community for [her] contributions to the safeguarding and promotion of traditional arts and crafts, which constitute a vital part of the world's cultural heritage'. (6) Queen Sirikit is indeed renowned in her country and abroad for her involvement in the preservation and revival of local Thai crafts, notably through the setting up of her Foundation for the Promotion of Supplementary Occupations and Related Techniques, known as SUPPORT. …

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